(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 0. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1992)


Graham Swift and the fens : a study in inter-textuality

Bernard Richards (Brasenose College, Oxford)

There are a number of modern novels which are inter-textual at their heart, by which I mean that they self-consciously respond to the terms of previous novels. Of course, such complete inter-textuality is not new : Fielding's novels in the eighteenth century were, to a large extent, full-scale responses to Samuel Richardson, and Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey was a full-scale response to the absurdities of Gothic fiction. In our time an example of a full-scale response to predecessors is William Golding's Lord of the Flies, which is an extended critique of previous novels about survival on desert islands, such as The Swiss Family Robinson and Coral Island. In Golding's case a harsh and unpalatable realism is opposed to an optimistic romanticism. Often in these inter-textual relationships the two halves of the debate are realism versus romanticism, full truth versus half truth. As a new generation dawns the novelists want to expose the romanticisms of a previous time and replace them with something harsher, or simply more humdrum. Funnily enough, novelists seem to be reluctant that people should learn from novels: they much prefer that people learn from life, and in so doing show up the inadequacies of existing novels as guides. This is one of the dominant running themes of the novel form in the Western world. But at the same time the novelists often do not wish completely to overthrow their predecessors; they merely attempt to offer a form of gentle revision or qualification, and to demonstrate that there is a continuation, however modified and diluted of the previous vision. To show a complete correspondence between novels and real life, to suggest that real events are totally dominated by previous fiction, would be to court a kind of aestheticism, and on the whole most novelists tend to be wary of aestheticism.

I think that something like this self-conscious awareness of what has gone before in literature occurs in the case of Waterland, where there are a number of previous texts,


directly or obliquely present. One of these texts is Conrad's The Secret Agent, where chaos and measurement, including the measurement of time, are continually opposed, and our attention is focused on this opposition by the presence in Greenwich Park of the meridian line, and the Observatory containing all its clocks. This line features in chapter 16 of Waterland (called "Longitude 0") and the line is also mentioned earlier. In the Observatory (Waterland 128) there are the "locked-up collections of antique chronometers, astrolabes, sextants, telescopes - instruments for measuring the universe." The anarchists in Conrad's novel, you will remember, wanted to blow the line up, because and measurement was thought to be a particular fetish of the British. It was decided that blowing up the National Gallery would administer an insufficiently powerful shock to the ruling classes. Incidentally, we learn that in the filmed version of Waterland, which will become available next year, the Greenwich and Lewisham scenes have been transferred to Pittsburgh. This is to be regretted, since Swift clearly belongs to a tradition of writing which regards places not as mere backgrounds but as repositories of cultural meaning. To set parts of Waterland in the States is as absurd as deciding to shoot a William Faulkner novel in Dorset. The decision was made for cynical commercial reasons. Sometimes critics decry the provincialism which arises out of the carefully chosen and specific locale, but time and time again English writing has demonstrated that its power derives from such intimate particularity. I am thinking of the Brontës, George Eliot, Hardy, Lawrence and Joyce. The denial of this particularity is symptomatic of the crass culturally imperialist nature of the insular and unimaginative American film industry.

The Secret Agent is not a previous text which is in Tom's mind. The main previous text, I believe, is Charles Kingsley's Hereward the Wake (1866), and he is fully aware of that. Hereward the Wake is about the ancient Anglo-Saxon and Viking strain of Britons who lived in the fens and opposed the Norman Conquest. It is a romantic story, told in the kind of old-fashioned, wordy, high falutin, high-minded style at which the Victorians were so adept. It is not my own scholarly ingenuity which is making this connection: Kingsley's historical novel looms over Waterland, and is referred to at various points throughout the work. It is undoubtedly a ghostly presence in Swift's novel. The first mention of Hereward is on p.8. He watches "Norman besiegers flounder and drown in the treacherous peat-bogs." Kingly is not named here, but since Kingly made Hereward a household name, he is present. The novel itself is first mentioned on p. 30. It is one of Tom Crick's childhood books, along with Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow and With Clive in India. Although these books are fiction they helped to give Tom a sense of the past, and, ultimately, turn him into a history teacher. On p.126 Kingsley is named as "the Fenland fabulist" - propagating the


view that the Dark Ages were "for the Fens their most lustrous and legendary period." This was when Canute was mesmerised by the singing of the monks as he rowed past Ely. On p.180 there is even more detail about Kingsley. Faced with the onslaught of pubescent anxiety Tom escapes into the novel. He reads it in "a now valuable" two volume fist edition, which has come down to him from the Atkinsons. This is 1940 :

While the inhabitants of London and other large cities are forced to take refuge within the solid fabric of air-raid shelters and underground stations, he takes refuge in the fanciful fabric of Kingsley's yarn, in which, in misty Fenland settings (which match his misty, love-sick state of mind), history merges with fiction, fact gets blurred with fable...
How the wild-fowl cried, "The Wake is come again" [...], how Hereward, in his magic armour, slew Sir Frederick Warenne at Lynn [...], how, disguised as a potter, he spied on William the Conqueror [...], how he fired the Fens and roasted the Normans [...], how he loved and married the Lady Torfida [...], how his marriage turned sour... (Waterland 180)

This final reference to Kingsley is at the point when Tom and Mary are going to seek out the old woman, Martha Clay, who will give Mary an abortion. Like the Kingsley Journey it is anxious and dangerous, but it is emphatically anti-romantic, and alarmingly real :

Along the Fenland tracks, across the Fenland dykes, by willow holts and sallow clumps, by paths and short-cuts, and plank-bridges known only to us, being children of the Fens. Like Hereward and Torfida (ah, cosy-thrilling late night readings), fleeing through the marshes after the sack of Ely. Their love too, so the story goes, and sustained them in the hour of calamity. But this is no story... (Waterland 259)

Suggesting, perhaps, that it is not love which sustains Tom and Mary but panic and desperation and some instinct for their survival.

There are many points, however, at which Waterland is deliberately opposed to Kingsley, in the kind of way that novels derived from previous novels often are. For one thing, the twentieth century is always ready to question the particular strain of active heroism which was popular in the nineteenth century Kingsley was undoubtedly one of the principal propagandists for such heroism; his novels were the vehicle on which it was widely


disseminated to the youth of Britain who would go out to build and maintain the Empire. The heady mixture of idealism, violence and xenophobia which made Britain so powerful was largely sustained by writers such as Kingsley, in works such as Hereward the Wake and Westward Ho!

However, so far as the Fenland is concerned there is a sense in which Swift is partially in agreement with aspects of Kingsley's Prelude to the novel, called "Of the Fens." And this is because Kingsley himself is also oppositional and revisionary in his attitude to previous novels. His great predecessor, as a writer of historical novels, was Scott, and Scott's romantic settings for his tales of derring-do were the Scottish Highlands. These locales came with a guaranteed and in-built romanticism, and were so distant and mysterious that, according to Kingsley, a French map of the eighteenth century left everything north of the Tay blank, with the inscription, "Terre inculte et sauvage, habitée par les Highlanders." The romanticism of highland districts had been underlined by the Romantic Poets, especially Wordsworth, whose grand romantic themes unfold, for the most part, amidst the mountains of the Lake District. " I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my poetic material" was the constant cry of the Romantics. Ruskin's chapters "Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory" in Modern Painters, studying the Turnerian sublime, underlined this tradition for the Victorians. Victorian realists could not forget this. George Eliot's Mill on the Floss celebrates Lowland country, and she turns her back on the invitingly romantic prospects of the Rhine. The Preface to Book IV of that novel is one of those long essays which George Eliot liked to drop into the middle of her works. This is what she says about the German Middle Ages :

that was a time of colour, when the sunlight fell on glancing steel and floating banners; a time of adventure and fierce struggle - nay, of living, religious art and religious enthusiasm ... Therefore it is that these Rhine castles thrill me with a sense of poetry: they belong to the grand historic life of humanity, and raise up for me the vision of an epoch.

But then she turns to the desolate villages, ruined by floods on the banks of the Rhone:

But these dead-tinted, hollow-eyed, angular skeletons of villages on the Rhone oppress me with the feeling that human life - very much of it - is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate, but rather then to exhibit in all its bare vulgarity of conception.


And then she goes on to admit that one might have a similar feeling of oppression in considering the lives of her characters on the banks of the Floss. Kingsley has the same kinds of realisations in the preface to Hereward. He throws down a kind of challenge and apology to the reader, warning him that easy effects are not what he is after, and that he is deliberately venturing into an ostensibly unpromising geography. He writes that the lowlands of the world "have been generally the soonest conquered, the soonest civilized, and therefore the soonest taken out of the sphere of romance and wild adventure, into that of order and law, hard work and common sense" (Waterland 1). There is some truth in this, in respect of the fens, since as Swift's character Tom Crick notes, the Romans built drainage ditches in the fens. The relentlessly straight canals indicate order and law, and this novel is certainly dominated by work - by the gathering and transportation of crops and the brewing of beer. Kingsley of course treats a fen-land before much of it was drained and tamed. He regards it rather as William Faulkner regards the retreating forest in "The Bear": as the last repository of wilderness which baffles civilized invaders. But in the end it is drained. The final chapter of Hereward the Wake is entitled "How deeping Fen was Drained", and it is a record of the conquering of wild and natural places :

Where had been lonely meres, foul watercourses, stagnant slime, there were now great dykes, rich and fair corn and grass lands, rows of white cottages. The newly-drained land swarmed with stocks of new breeds: horses and sheep from Flanders, cattle from Normandy; for Richard de Rulos was the first - as far as history tells - of that noble class of agricultural squires, who are England's blessing and England' pride. (Hereward the Wake 514)

Richard de Rulos

shut out the Welland by strong embankments and building thereon numerous tenements and cottages, till in a short time he formed a large "vill", marked out gardens and cultivated fields; while, by shutting out the river, he found in the meadow land, which had been lately deep lakes and impassable marshes [...] most fertile fields and desirable lands, and out of sloughs and bog accursed made quite a garden of pleasance. (Hereward the Wake 515)

Kingsley was sufficient of a Victorian to believe in progress, and progress involved the taming of nature. He refers to the draining of the fens as "the good work of the centuries". In our time we have so few wild places left that we tend to want to keep them. A more


sensitive Victorian than Kingsley, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins makes a plea, in his poem "Inversnaid" for the retention of wild and wet places where possible :

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left
O let them be left, wilderness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

It must be said, though, that that was a fairly unusual attitude in the nineteenth century.

Kingsley continues at length (Hereward the Wake 2 and 3) about the differences between the poetic highlands and the practical and prosaic lowlands. On the face of it this seems sensible and valid enough. He thinks that "the sense of the beautiful dies out" in the lowlander, and he becomes unpoetical and irreverent. But Swift's Waterland questions some of this. On the very first page Tom's father tells the boys: "Do you know what the stars are? They are the silver dust of God's blessing. They are little broken-off bits of heaven." He posits a species of imagination and a sense of beauty in the inhabitants, and on p.101 says that "despite emptiness, monotony, this Fenland, this palpable earth raised out of the flood by centuries of toil, is a magical, a miraculous land." He goes along, for the most part, with the idea that geographically nature has been tamed and defeated in the Fens - but it is not a total defeat. He records floods at various times, and this part of England continues to be susceptible to flooding. There was an enormous flood in about 1952. I remember this, because although we did not have a television at that time, our neighbours did, and I was allowed to go round to watch the weekly news round-up, where for a time the principal news items were graphic pictures of the whole district reduced to one enormous lake. In the long term, mankind only has a temporary victory over the sea, and it has been claimed, recently, that if Global warming raises the sea-level, then it will not be economically viable to maintain the coastal defences on the East Coast, and much of the Fens will have to be abandoned to the mercies of the sea. On your maps the shaded areas in green are below sea-level. London itself is in danger from the rising tides, and a barrier has been erected at the end of the Thames estuary. It is mentioned in Waterland (on p.112) as in the process of being built in 1980. It is now complete of course. And the natural forces are present in Swift, linking man closer than he might often feel comfortable, with other natural processes. The pail of abortion fluid dumped into the water is a graphic picture of the fact that mankind might have as intimate and dominated relationships with his environment as the eel. Pace Charles Kingsley there are mysteries in the fens - it took centuries for scientist to understand the breeding habits of the eel, for instance. There is mystery in the skies, and beauty too.


Another sense in which Swift is close to Kingsley is in the interest in history. We should, of course, really be talking about Tom Crick - he is not writing a novel, he is writing a record, in which his personal history is intermingled with other histories - particularly of the French Revolution. He is producing something which is a hybrid of a philosophical essay, a historical narrative and an autobiography. Whatever else he is doing, he is not writing a novel. That activity is reserved for Graham Swift. Tom Crick weaves back and forth through history, not worrying too much about strict chronological sequence. The same kind of thing happens in Out of this World. In this way a complex web of inter-relations, of cause and effect is created. In that passage I have quoted from the beginning of Book IV of The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot also makes a commitment to a view of connectedness :

In natural science, I have understood, there is nothing pretty to the mind that has a large vision of relations, and to which every single object suggests a vast sum of conditions. It is surely the same with the observation of human life.

This could almost be an epigraph for Waterland. Like Kingsley, and like Swift, she is passionately concerned with history. These writers all set their actions against real historical periods, with real dates and real events. This will tend to lead to a species of novelistic impurity, and possibly to a kind of didacticism. Kingsley is not a pure fiction writer by any means : he is very impure, by the rigorously demanding standards of Flaubert and Henry James, with a strong taste for sermonizing and didacticism. Swift's narrator shares with Kingsley the habit of juxtaposing different times. Actually this is a besetting sin of the historical novel - this wisdom after the event, this free access to all periods.

Hereward went on towards the Welland, little dreaming that on those open worlds, a place would one day arise, beside which King Edward's new Hall at Westminster would show but a tything-barn [...] Over the Welland to Brig Casterton, where Dick Turpin crossed in after times, like him avoiding Stamford town. (Hereward the Wake 48-9)

The palace is of course the prodigious Burghley House. I don't like this irritating tic of the historical novelist, the "where there was later to arise" type of interpolation. It tends to spoil historical novels in my view, but it is horribly common - we find it in Bulwer Lytton (Thackeray justly mocked it in Burlesque Novels), in George Eliot's Romola and Pater's Marius the Epicurean. We find it very much in John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's


Woman and A Maggot, where the essay-writing itch and the omni-present wisdom after the event cannot be suppressed. One way or another there is a lot of this indulged freedom of movement about in the modern novel. An ancestral trait of the development of the novel (that as a genre it partly emerges from the essay-writing mode of Montaigne, say), is continually bubbling to the surface. As these writers brood on history the natural sequence of chronology tends to interest them less than the kinds of juxtapositions which can produce interesting didactic effects once one abandons strict time sequence. For the speculative consciousness, time past is not a prison - it is an extensive unrestricted playroom.

These writers, George Eliot; Kingsley and Swift, all share another trait which relates to the impurity and to the inter-textuality: they are interested in a philosophy of reality. This interest is not a mere picturesque digression: I think that once an author reaches a certain level of self-consciousness such an interest is almost inevitable. George Eliot has a famous interruption in Adam Bede called "In which the story pauses for a little." Actually, it does to pause for a little, it pauses for a lot, and in that pause she makes a thorough exploration of a philosophy of artistic realism. This involves the support of Dutch artists (notice the lowland theme coming in again) at the expense of the high idealisations of the Italian Old Masters such as Raphael. For her artists such as Gerard Drou and Gabriel Metsu represented direct truth. She wanted to make that kind of truth accessible for herself. High Art, traditionally, dealt with saints and prophets and important figures who participated in big set scenes. George Eliot had a feeling that realism might, more usually, reside somewhere else, in the day-by-day texture of life, and belong to Low Art.

And some such worry haunts Tom Crick. He is a historian, and he spends some of his time with the French Revolution. It was filled, certainly, with dramatic, even melodramatic events, with theatrical, paintable scenes. The French Revolution produced some memorable high art images, none higher, perhaps, than Delacroix's La Liberté guidant le peuple. But Tom has a restless curiosity that says, to quote Henry James's Preface to Roderick Hudson, "really, relations stop nowhere," and he wonders if there might not be another kind of history, which is less reducible to narrative, less conventionally heroic, more resident in the day-by-day flat, lowland texture of life:

Reality doesn't reside in the sudden hallucination of events. Reality is uneventfulness, vacancy, flatness. Reality is that nothing happens. How many of the events of history have occurred, ask yourselves, for this and for that reason, but for no other reason, fundamentally, than the desire to make things happen ?


I present to you History, the fabrication, the diversion, the reality-obscuring drama. History, and its near relative Histrionics (Waterland 34)

You can see that Tom Crick has become intrigued by the kinds of obsessions that modern historians have exhibited in producing such works as Montaillou. In Britain there is the contemporary historian John Cobb, who wants to produce a thick-textured history, stocked with as many ordinary people as possible. Simon Schama is something of an anomaly, since in Citizens he wants to write the more traditional history with a strong narrative line and strong moral and political commitment too. It is interesting that in some of his more recent work he is being seduced in the dangerous direction of fiction.

What Tom Crick manages, ultimately, though, is to make subtle inter-connections which take us back, via family history, to the eighteenth century, and to produce thick-textured history which does have dramatic stories, culminating in a murder and a suicide, which, so far as the young boy is concerned, loom larger in his consciousness, both at the time and possibly afterwards, than the gigantic second World War going on just across the English Channel. These stories are so dramatic that for him they take the strongly narrative form of Carlyle's influential French Revolution, say. At the end of the novel, just before his brother's suicide takes place, the noise of the dredger starts up, and it bodes no good. With one word Swift associates this local event with the enormous historical theatricalities of the French Revolution: "the noise of the dredger continues, like a tocsin." (p. 305)

"Tocsin" is the word that catches my attention: it connects these private and unrecorded events to the major cataclysm of modern European History. In the end Tom Crick is presenting a seamless web, so that finally there need not be firm distinctions between large-scale heroic, scenic, public events and small-scale private ones. They shade into each other, and are all bound up in the complex picture of cause and effect.

 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 0. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1992)